Review of “The Look of Love” (The Sullivans/San Francisco Sullivans #1) by Bella Andre

Andre, Bella. The Look of Love. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin MIRA, 2012.

Mass Market Paperback | $5.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0778315568 | 379 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I received The Look of Love and several other of the Harlequin editions of the Bella Andre’s Sullivans books as part of a haul of books from a friend who was moving recently. And despite not knowing much about Bella Andre, I was intrigued, especially since the setup sounded a bit like a contemporary equivalent to Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons, at least in the sense of the broad setup.

And as a whole, this is a delightful start to the series, introducing or at least mentioning all of the family members, while also not taking away the spotlight from the couple of this book, Chase and Chloe, who are such well-written, compelling characters. I should warn some people that there are some moments that may feel a bit info-dump-y, sorting out who each sibling is, how old they are, and what each of them does for a living, but I quite liked this, as with such a large family, I knew I would need to make a “cheat sheet” of sorts to keep everyone straight.

While Bella Andre definitely writes alpha heroes, she writes the sort that are more protective rather than overbearing, which suits the dynamic here to a tee. Almost from page one, Chase was endearing to me, with the care he showed toward Chloe and the amount of love he clearly expressed toward his family. While he doesn’t categorize himself as a saint, and he (like all his brothers) definitely has a playboy past which comes into play in subtle ways in this one, I liked that he felt like a normal person that I would like to spend time with in real life, thus making it easier to fall in love with him as Chloe did (and him being more forward with his feelings when she was unsure doesn’t hurt either!)

Chloe is also a great character, and I love how Andre delved into the nuances of what it feels like to have been in an abusive relationship in a believable way. While her reluctance to fully commit may be an issue for some, I found it worked within the context of her situation.

This is a great introductory book by an author I’m so excited to have discovered, and I will definitely be reading more from her in the near future. I recommend this to others who love a great family-oriented romance series.

Review of “Ayesha at Last” by Uzma Jalaluddin

Jalaluddin, Uzma. Ayesha at Last. 2018. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984802798 | 351 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Ayesha at Last is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling published in 2019, but it is by far my favorite of the three, with both its subtle take on the Austen classic and the way it chooses to handle the issues it does, including arranged marriage, workplace discrimination, and characters defining their identity within a Muslim community in Toronto.

I love that this take allowed for a fresh and unique conflict between the two main characters, and one that led to me learn a lot more about Muslims and the differences in their belief systems that exist. And I found it interesting the way Jalaluddin played with reader expectations, having Khalid, the one raised in Toronto, being more conservative and adopting the very traditional look for the majority of the novel, as well as believing his mother knows what is best, including in marriage, while Ayesha, who lived in India before immigrating following her father’s death, is also religious, but has more progressive ideas, including about marriage.

And while the Elizabeth/Darcy parallels are there, what with them clashing, yet having feelings for each other, and especially that memorable awkward proposal scene (fixed with an adorable letter!), this is one of the ways in which Jalaluddin makes the characters and their relationship truly her own, and I love that.

The other characters also were incredibly fun, the villains being the exception to this, and I like how there was just as much focus on the importance of family in spite of everything as there was on the relationship. I did really want more Zareena, as the hints given about how she fell in love with Iqram were so beautiful, and he doesn’t even appear on the page? That’s a crime.

I really enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed the positive and nuanced perspective that it presents about Muslim and South Asian people/communities, especially when there isn’t a ton of other media (and definitely not many other romances) that are doing the same thing. I would recommend it to all rom-com fans, whether you’re familiar with Pride and Prejudice or not.

Review of “The Unhoneymooners” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. The Unhoneymooners. New York: Gallery Books, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501128035 | 400 pages | Contemporary Romance

3.5 stars

The Unhoneymooners is the weakest of the Christina Lauren stand-alone rom-coms, to the point where I had incredibly mixed feelings. On the one hand, it does have some of their signature elements, the primary one being the banter between the hero and heroine that kept me amused as I watched them fall in love.

And on the whole, the characters were pretty solid. Olive is incredibly relatable, what with her feelings of imperfection in spite of her accomplishments, and I feel like it wasn’t helped by some of the issues going on around her, which I will get into in a bit. I wasn’t too sure about Ethan at first, especially given that it was meant to be an enemies-to-lovers romance, but I was quickly won over by his good qualities, although he does have a fatal flaw which I will also get into momentarily that I’m not 100% over. But it’s nice to continue to see nice solid normal men in Chistina Lauren books, and ones with fun quirks, like Ethan’s fear of flying, which is quite ironic in this scenario.

And I did really enjoy their description of the setting. I was a bit nervous when I heard it was set in Hawaii, although mildly assuaged when I saw it was set on Maui. And while it is from a tourist’s perspective, with the view of it being a paradise and vacation away from real life, I did feel like the environment described more or less rang true.

Now for my issues with the book: I was unprepared for so much familial dysfunction, some of it resolved to my liking, some of it feeling a little too neatly resolved. I did appreciate that, once everyone else knew what a scumbag Dane was, he was cut out of all their lives, but I feel like the boiling point for Olive’s relationship with her twin Ami was only a small indicator of larger issues, and while she did grow into a better person over the course of the story to the point of these flaws Ami pointed out in the heat of the moment feeling somewhat resolved, I did feel like Olive forgave her a bit too easily, given her prior feelings of inadequacy.

I still feel like this is worth the read for the high points, but the low points resulted in the dampening of my enjoyment somewhat. However, given those high points, I still recommend this to any diehard CLo readers who haven’t gotten to this yet or to fans of rom-coms, in hopes that you might have a more positive experience than I did.

Review of “Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors” (The Rajes #1) by Sonali Dev

Dev, Sonali. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062839053 | 487 pages | Contemporary Romnance

2.5-ish (light 3) stars

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors excited me, because while I had already come to like, and in some cases, even love Sonali Dev’s writing, I was also curious to see what she would do with this concept of a gender-swapped Pride and Prejudice.

And in that regard, she more or less made it work, stripping the story back to the bare-bones themes and some broader plot elements, as well as sticking in a reference or two. DJ (standing for Darcy James xD) makes a great homage to Elizabeth, having worked his way up from nothing to become a chef, while working to care for his sister, who has a brain tumor. Trisha Raje, a bit of a looser homage to Darcy, is the black sheep of a prominent Indian American family and a neurosurgeon working on Emma’s care.

I love how things progressed from the meet-disaster where they both (of course) make assumptions about each other, to coming to work together on Emma’s care, to things developing beyond that.

This story has much more going on that just the romance, however, and I had mixed feelings about the rest of it. While I did like some of Trisha’s family members, like her siblings and such, I wasn’t a big fan of the way her parents treated her, especially her father, and felt like it could have been addressed much better.

But one of my biggest complaints stems from the translation and execution of a big plot point in the latter half of P&P, and one of the few that really makes an appearance. The premise of the story begins with Yash, Trisha’s brother, beginning a campaign for political office in California, and this leads to some secrets from his past involving a former friend of Trisha’s to be delved into, and it turns out he was essentially sexually assaulted by said “friend.” I feel like it would have been fine if it deviated into hushing this girl up to prevent shame, due to perhaps not being believed, or due to the deepened stigma of being a male victim of sexual assault in general, especially one in his position. But instead, we got this delightful passage:

“Julia Wickham could destroy him and he knew it. No one would care that he’d been the victim, not in today’s climate. The worst part was that if he did get justice, if people did believe him, it could set the progress women were making back a hundred years. He would never want that.” (Dev, 377)

I first saw this passage pointed out in another review on Goodreads and couldn’t believe it, but sure enough, I soon found the passage for myself. And, no, that’s not how feminism or the #MeToo movement is meant to work (extremists aside)!. You literally have cases like the one between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, where evidence is coming out that proves the exact opposite of what is claimed in this abhorrent passage, and I would think truly compassionate women (and people in general) would both see that men can be victims and women perpetrators of both domestic and sexual violence, without it supposedly “setting women back.”

Unfortunately, this is a case of one misused ingredient ruining the entire formula to an extent for me (to use a food reference, because it’s a major part of this book). As I do like Dev’s writing, I may still check out the other books in the series as they come out, since she has stated her plans to loosely adapt other Austen novels.

Given my feelings about the way sexual assault was discussed, I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone, or if I did, it would be to fans of multicultural romance, with a caveat that there is an incredibly off-color moment which could shape your perceptions of the whole.

Review of “Beautiful Player” (Beautiful Bastard #3) by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Beautiful Player. New York: Gallery Books, 2013.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1476751405 | 406 pages | Erotic Romance

3 stars

To this point, I have loved all of Christina Lauren’s stand-alone books, but largely resisted picking up their erotic series. However, I was looking to try another erotic romance with this series being one I was considerimg, and on the advice of book club friends regarding a mix of quality and my own preferences for more egalitarian power dynamics, I skipped to book 3.

And Beautiful Player is more or less a pretty solid, if rather flawed book. Older brother best friend/best friend’s little sister is one of my favorite tropes, being sort of friends-to-lovers-esque, and I felt like the relationship between Hanna and Will was some pretty well. It starts out with them hanging out due to her needing to get out more, and I loved that, along with the buildup to more.

I did feel a bit more mixed about the characters themselves, and it may be a bit more of a personal preference thing than anything else. Despite Hanna not being a virgin, she’s still naive to the point of annoyance about sex. While it’s possible she just never really found someone who gave her real pleasure up to this point, I found it grating that someone who has done it before would be so inexperienced. And coupled with that, I did have some minor quibbles going in about Will’s playboy past, and they were not assuaged. While it’s not a dealbreaker like the alphahole hero, the playboy/rake ruined for all others by the naive heroine is so overdone.

But it isn’t a bad book by any means, and it definitely kept me invested in the fate of the relationship, despite its casual nature for most of the book. And I think if you’re more of a fan of conventional romance tropes like the naive heroine and playboy hero, this one might work a bit better for you.

Review of “The Bride Test” (The Kiss Quotient #2) by Helen Hoang

Hoang, Helen. The Bride Test. New York: Jove, 2019.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451490827 | 300 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I started The Bride Test, feeling both excited and uncertain: the premise sounded awesome and I love Helen Hoang’s style, but I wasn’t sure anything could quite live up to the instantly relatable Stella and the surprisingly supportibe Michael in The Kiss Quotient. And while it did take a little longer to acquaint myself with these characters, I ended up loving them just as much, if not more, given the realness and depth to the story.

Esme as a character is one that breaks new ground for what we think of as a romance heroine in an romance novel published in the U.S. and this is something Hoang discusses to an extent in her author’s note. I love how she went from using Esme as a side character/rival to challenging the notions of what makes a believable heroine, which is at the center of so much discourse on diversity in romance today. She comes from less-than-perfect origins, but epitomizes the ideal of the American Dream of the immigrant coming over to America and finding a way to thrive. And the fact that Hoang was inspired by her mother’s experience made this all the more beautiful.

Khai as a character took a little longer to grow on me. I did admire that Hoang managed to navigate writing the experience of a male character with autism, given the differences in how it manifests depending on gender, but I did not immediately find him endearing. However, he grew on me over the course of the book, due to the fact that, in spite of him appearing somewhat closed-off and professing to be incapable of feeling, he does feel and express emotion in his own way, and that made me first appreciate him more, then fall in love with him along with Esme. Not to mention, his relationships with his family are adorable, especially in moments where Quan (and at one point Michael) help him navigate the world of love and sex.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone who loves a great diverse contemporary romance, although I would encourage even those who don’t typically read the genre to try it as well. Hoang once again crafts a wonderful story, full of humor heat, and heart, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Review of “For Real” by Alexis Hall

Hall, Alexis. For Real. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide Publishing, 2015.

Paperback | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1626492806 | 339 pages | Erotic Romance

4.5 stars

I never would have anticipated prior to this year that I would ever pick up a book like For Real, given my complaints in the past about books with sex scenes (or allusions to sex) too early in the book for my taste. But this one came highly recommended, and I was even encouraged to put some of my qualms about BDSM aside (although admittedly most were fostered by the negative response to the portrayal of BDSM in other, more notable works, like the Fifty Shades series).

So, I was incredibly surprised to find how much I enjoyed this one. And while some of those other books failed to invest me in the sexy bits due to lack of character depth or overall likability, this book was different. Laurie and Toby are both compelling and well-rounded, and neither feels like a stereotype of what a dominant or a submissive is…in large part due to this book completely flipping the roles, and having younger Toby be dominant in the kinky bits.

However, it’s the emotional connection that stands out here. I love those little moments , such as how after spending the night together, Toby makes Laurie breakfast, and you genuinely feel them falling for one another, even if there is this fear, especially on Laurie’s side, that it won’t last.

I do have some minor quibbles with the way the dual first person narrative ended up being executed. You can more or less follow who’s narrating for most of the book, but there’s one chapter when the feelings are super heightened where both perspectives are given, and it felt a little jarring to read a passage from one person’s head, then guess that we’re hopping to the other person’s, and back and forth.

This is, however, for the most part a wonderfully subversive book that I think most romance fans should read, regardless of whether they think they are a fan of BDSM or not

Review of “The Girl He Used to Know” by Tracey Garvis Graves

Garvis Graves, Tracey. The Girl He Used to Know. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250200358 | 291 pages | Contemporary Romance

4.5 stars

I had randomly added The Girl He Used to Know to my TBR without even really thinking about it or even bothering to read much of the blurb, because I’m a sucker for the illustrated cover trend. It was only later when I actually went back to look at it that I saw what a happy coincidence it was that the heroine was not only a librarian who had gotten her Bachelor’s in English (although, now that I think of it, the heroine does look like your stereotypical librarian on the cover), but was also socially awkward, meaning that prior to even starting the book, I already felt I related to her.

Therefore, much like with last year’s The Kiss Quotient, I was deeply moved as I went on Annika’s journey to finding out about herself and becoming more confident in her skin. And while Garvis Graves is not on the autism spectrum or intimately acquainted with anyone who is, I felt like she took the proper care with writing Annika in a way that made her struggles resonate with someone like me.

Jonathan is also exactly the kind of hero I would want someone like Annika to be with, and I thought it was beautiful to watch their past relationship and present one unfolding simultaneously. I love that he nurtures her and sees her in the past arc, and I love the way it informs Annika wanting to be more confident and capable as she pursues a relationship with him again years later, especially given how her own fears held her back the first time.

I also thought it was an…interesting…choice to set the final crisis towards the end around 9/11, and I wish I had put all the pieces together sooner, given that it was all there, from him having a job that is based in New York to the fact that the “present” day arc begins in August 2001. While I did feel like this could have been substituted with any major crisis, perhaps a more recent one or a fictional one, it still accomplished the intent of the whole situation, which was to compel Annika out of her comfort zone and have her taking risks to be there for him for once.

On the whole, this is a solid book about hope and growth of character. I definitely recommend for those looking for a heartwarming contemporary romance.

Review of “The Cliff House” by RaeAnne Thayne

Thayne, RaeAnne. The Cliff House. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335004901| 361 pages | Women’s Fiction

3 stars

The Cliff House was my first book by RaeAnne Thayne, and I definitely won’t be the last. Despite this apparently being somewhat different in style from her romances, I like the small-town feel that exudes through the book, one I am guessing is a common staple of Thayne’s work.

Unfortunately, this book suffered from trying to do a little too much with a single book. The premise promises a lot, with the development of three women’s stories and romances. And while I cannot see a way to keep the current simultaneous nature of the events while also fleshing out the stories, I feel it fell a little flat in trying to squeeze it all into a single book.

The one storyline I felt came through and made me feel invested was Daisy and her developing relationship with Gabe. It was great to see her taking risks and living, not to mention those little moments of bonding that she has with Gabe throughout. It doesn’t hurt that their arc involves a stray (or is he?) French Bulldog.

I did think the one thing that held the story together, in spite of weaknesses in my investment with Stella and Beatriz’s story arcs, was the relationships between the women, especially as secrets come to light. I think, in spite of Thayne’s romance origins, this is a book that could have benefitted from more exploration of the familial relationships in favor of trying to develop three romances.

For the most part, this was a decent book, although I’m not sure if this is the best indicator of Thayne’s work. I would recommend it if you like romantic women’s fiction with multiple perspectives, and would encourage anyone else who’s interested to also seek out a second opinion from a seasoned RaeAnne Thayne reader to decide if this the place to start with her work.

Review of “Meet Cute” by Helena Hunting

Hunting, Helena. Meet Cute. New York: Forever, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1538760185 | 370 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Meet Cute was a wonderful breath of fresh air following a DNF of another hotly anticipated April release. While it is a fairly predictable combination of rom-com-meets-family-drama, I found it incredibly charming, especially in its balance of the family aspect and the romance, and will definitely be picking up more Helena Hunting as the opportunity arises, as she was an author I took a chance on based on the cute cover, as well as the compelling blurb.

What stood out for me for Kailyn was her relatability in the blurb of being able to meet her teen idol, and acting like a huge fangirl, and how it develops from there, to friendship to betrayal to them ending up having to work together on a professional basis.

Dax was also interesting, as I liked the idea of looking at a retired child star, and not only his motivations for stepping back from the spotlight, but his present relationship with his family, especially since it plays such a crucial role in the book. His relationship with Emme stood out to me as the best part, because it’s obvious he’s trying to be a good brother and guardian, but there are some things he’s a little out of his depth with, like menstruation. While some might find the handling of the situation from his perspective a bit awkward, I felt for the most part it did feel relatable, even if it did fall into a stereotype of men not really understanding those things.

My only major complaint is that the villain, while feeling like she had great motivations at first, devolved into something somewhat cartoonish by the end, especially with the train of events in the second half where Emme is framed for something she didn’t do. It all just seemed so overdone and predictable without any attempt to shake it up.

That said, this is still a relatively fun contemporary, and if this is an indicator of her writing, I will definitely at least be reading a few more of Helena Hunting’s books. And I would recommend this to other fans of contemporary romances with a good (if cliche) balance of humor and heart.